GAINESVILLE — Two days before Florida's game against South Carolina, coach Billy Donovan expressed two major concerns: Florida's defense, which he felt had slipped over the past few games, and its struggles at the free-throw line.
Both came back to haunt the Gators on Saturday afternoon.
Florida was 12-of-22 from the line and gave up 14 offensive rebounds as the Gamecocks defeated the Gators 72-69 in front of 12,158 at the O'Connell Center.
It was a bitter ending after Florida (13-4, 2-1 SEC) battled back from a double-digit deficit.
"We had too many missed blockouts, we missed assignments, and those guys got their own offensive rebounds," senior center Vernon Macklin said. "Coach said before the game those guys rebound 38 percent of their misses, and they did the same thing (Saturday). We've got to do a better job of blocking out."
Trailing 35-25 at halftime, Florida methodically chipped away, aided by South Carolina's poor shooting early in the second half (with 10:42 remaining, the Gamecocks were 3-of-13).
After junior guard Erving Walker pulled the Gators within 59-57 with 3:18 remaining, senior forward Alex Tyus tied the score at 59 with a rebound off Walker's missed free throw. But South Carolina's Sam Muldrow hit a 3-pointer with 53 seconds left, and the Gamecocks hit a driving layup and four consecutive free throws in the final 28.2 seconds to hang on. When South Carolina (11-5, 2-1) took a 14-13 lead with 10:23 remaining in the first half, the Gators never led again.
"I thought the game was going to be ugly; we would have to make some ugly plays," Donovan said. "In the first half, we lacked the understanding about how we needed to attack them offensively."
South Carolina started three freshmen, and the Gators had no answer for one of them, Bruce Ellington, who had a game-high 23 points. "We came in and knocked down some big shots," Ellington said.
After struggling early, Florida shot 44.8 percent from the field, but the free-throw shooting — including Walker's missed front end of a one-and-one with 1:09 left and the Gators trailing 63-62 — was extremely costly. Florida missed its final five free throws.
"We just got to make them in the game," Walker said. "It definitely came back to bite us (Saturday). We left too many points out there, especially down the stretch. We've just got to make them."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.